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Hotels dive into world of high tech but fail to make a splash

Times Staff Writer

At Hotel 1000, which markets its high-technology trappings to those visiting this tech-driven city, occupants can get high-definition movies delivered over the Internet to a giant flat screen. That is, they can if they point the remote at exactly the right spot: an unlabeled clump of wires peeking out from under the monitor.

At the W Los Angeles-Westwood, guests can use something resembling a plastic parking meter to order margaritas from a poolside chaise. Most stick with the waiters.

At the new Grand Del Mar resort in San Diego, a breakfast tray left outside the room will beam a silent complaint to the management until it gets picked up. At least, it will after the hotel gets some new gizmos to make it work.

Many such hotels are trying to catch up with a population that is more comfortable with technology than ever. The $133-billion lodging industry’s cutting edge sees a business opportunity in traveling lawyers pining for high-speed Internet access, twentysomethings looking for a place to plug in their iPods and vacationers preferring YouTube over the boob tube.

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But although the trend is gathering steam, it’s a tricky proposition for an industry that is more Flintstones than Jetsons.

“We’re a business that’s still trying to come to grips with the toaster,” complained John Burns, president of Hospitality Technology Consulting in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you have to turn the knob to make it lighter or darker, we have to think about that.”

Still, customers want what they want. In a survey of business travelers this year, 58% said free high-speed Internet access was “very” or “extremely” influential in determining where they stayed -- triple the proportion from five years earlier.

Though location, price and overall reputation still matter more, “what’s really remarkable is that the amenities that have risen fastest in terms of consumer preference are all technologies,” said hotel marketer Peter Yesawich, whose Orlando firm conducts the annual poll. “There’s an expectation that what people have in their home, they will find when traveling.”

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Generally speaking, that hasn’t been true for a long time. The hotel industry’s contributions to innovation might have peaked three decades ago when it introduced HBO to the masses. And that happened only because hotels didn’t have to pony up any money: Companies such as Lodgenet Entertainment Corp. install satellite or cable TV connections for free, then give hotels a cut of their pay-per-view revenue.

Since then, most major technology improvements have required substantial investments by hotels. That money has been tough to get, in part because many hotels have split control, with local building owners having to agree with management companies and often a national-brand czar before anything happens.

For good measure, the industry’s vendors and technology infrastructure are badly fragmented. Many hotels have dozens of computer systems that don’t speak to each other.

Newly enlightened

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Grudgingly, many hotel officials now acknowledge that they need to get with the times.

The current round of upgrades is driven by two big constituencies: Guests want Net access. And hotels want flat-screen televisions, which goose in-room movie sales.

“If you have a big screen and surround sound at home, when you come to your hotel and there’s a 24-inch tube TV with a mono speaker, you’re not going to buy ‘Harry Potter,’ ” said Arnon Levy, chief executive of Guest-Tek Interactive Entertainment, which sells hotels Internet access, including a new package that integrates Net phone calls and high-definition movies.

After hotel officials started buying big screens, they realized how unimpressive the picture looked unless both the televisions and the videos were high-definition. And that led to soul-searching, dollar-scrounging and debates about which delivery systems to use.

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Independently owned hotels are leading the charge into the future. Their competitors are following, worried about losing customers. Eventually that will lead to hotel stays that aren’t quite so frustrating for the connected crowd: guests who want to surf the Net while instant-messaging and playing computer games.

“We’re making definite but slow progress,” consultant Burns said. Modernization is “scary, because it’s expensive and it doesn’t work all the time, but ultimately it’s not optional.”

There certainly are going to be some hiccups, as recent visits to some of the souped-up hotels made clear.

The W in Westwood installed the drink-ordering gizmos, which are officially called intelliChaise Personal Ordering Systems, in late July. The hotel’s information technology manager, Teo Risquez, said he has seen 15 or more in use at a time during crowded cocktail hours.

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But the technology requires the exact thing it’s intended to replace: a waiter. Guests need a server to give a brief tutorial and input their room numbers before they can set up a personal code for access.

Members of the younger set are the most willing to try. The younger subset with long fingernails has the best luck; the touch-screen displaying color pictures of drinks and food doesn’t respond well to regular taps of a finger. The nail-challenged are given white plastic finger styluses that conjure up images of Cruella De Vil from “101 Dalmatians.”

Even so equipped, some guests have to poke at the screen up to half a dozen times to get the point across.

The maker of intelliChaise -- Tiare Technology Inc. of Cherry Hill, N.J. -- said that an imminent software upgrade should make the touch-screens more responsive, and that it is still working out the kinks. The W Los Angeles-Westwood is only the company’s second customer, following the Four Seasons in Miami.

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Tiare President Jeff Krevitt said the visual displays could overcome language barriers while promoting profitable menu items and hotel services.

“There’s just so much more potential,” he said.

The W is among the still-rarefied class of hotels that make technology a big part of their draw.

The one in Westwood lets guests rent laptops for $25 a day. A “Wired” package, which is the chain’s most popular add-on, includes unlimited Net access and a year’s subscription to Wired magazine.Perhaps most usefully, a kiosk in the lobby lets visitors check out of the hotel and check in for their flights at the same time, so they can leave in minutes with a printed receipt and a boarding pass.

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Better Internet service

The hotel, like many others across the country, is upgrading to a bigger Internet pipe, with plans to charge at least the heavy users for access to the faster connection. It also promises high-definition free cable and pay movies on high-definition flat screens soon.

At the Grand Del Mar, which opened this month, guests can get access to the Internet through their televisions and use no-contact key cards that unlock doors when they are waved past a sensor. The hotel will also soon offer the trays that tell staff when they’re ready to be picked up.

Less ostentatious has been the spending -- probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- to put in signal amplifiers and other gear ensuring that guests get cellphone reception.

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A new chain called eSuites Hotels, meanwhile, may be the first to make technology its top selling point. When the first four hotels open next year in Phoenix; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Tampa, Fla.; and Jacksonville, Fla.; at least half the rooms will come with their own personal computers.

The most geeked-out

For now, Seattle’s Hotel 1000 is seen as the most geeked-out place to stay, at least on the West Coast. That title comes with the classic penalty for high-tech pioneers: gadgets that don’t work.

An amazing number of the hotel’s services are connected to a single fiber-optic backbone, including Guest-Tek’s Internet-based TV system, electronic do-not-disturb buttons and room phones that offer free Internet-based calling to anywhere in the U.S. -- doing away with the traditional practice of jacking up in-room calling rates in search of profits.

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A mildly unnerving high-tech addition: money-saving electronic mini-bars that charge you and signal for a replenishment when an item has been removed for more than 30 seconds. Why so little time?

“It’s amazing how quickly people can take a mini bottle of vodka, pour it out into a glass and refill it with water and put it back,” hotel technology consultant Jon Inge said.

Problem areas include French press coffee makers with six-step instructions that could perplex their caffeine-deprived operators, and the TV remotes, which have to be pointed at an infrared sensor instead of the television screen. Guest-Tek says that is because the hotel bought the wrong kind of monitors.

Although not everything works, Hotel 1000 can still fulfill at least one ultimate geek-on-the-road fantasy.

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A recent guest’s call to complain about a broken remote was met with a peculiar response from the front desk clerk: “I’ll send an engineer right up.”

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

High tech checks in

The $133-billion lodging industry has been slow to offer fancy gizmos and other new technologies, but many hotels are modernizing to try to attract guests. Here are some high-tech offerings that are being installed or considered by hotel owners:

Flat-panel TVs with high-definition programming

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Faster Internet connections

Biometric self-service

The intelliChaise Personal Ordering System, which lets patrons order drinks and food from a touch-screen device

RoboBar, which mixes perfect drinks for about 30 cents an hour

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Combined television and mirror

Switchable privacy glass

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Source: Times research, Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals

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